U.S. Syria Representative Says His Job Is to Make the War a 'Quagmire' for Russia

The U.S. special representative for Syria has urged continued American deployment to the war torn country in order to keep pressure on U.S. enemies and make the conflict a "quagmire" for Russia.

Special Representative James Jeffrey said Tuesday during a Hudson Institute video call that President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" approach towards Syria was paying dividends, and rejected concerns that the American deployment there could turn into a drawn out and costly project akin to Afghanistan or Vietnam.

"We are pursuing what we think is a smart policy," Jeffrey said of the U.S. approach to Syria, where at least 500 American soldiers are still deployed alongside allied local forces and to support operations against remaining Islamic State militants.

The special representative said the Trump administration has chosen "a very limited American military presence for a very specific goal: to go after ISIS, supporting military operations of other countries in various ways—Turkey, Israel—and focusing on economic and diplomatic pressure."

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"Our military presence—while small—is important to this whole overall calculation, so we urge the Congress, the American people, the president to keep these forces on," Jeffrey added.

The U.S. has opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the civil war erupted in 2011 after the dictator used force to try and stamp out pro-reform protests. The U.S. supported a range of anti-Assad rebel groups and later aligned with Kurdish-led forces in the eastern portion of the country.

Assad—who now controls the majority of the country—is backed by Russia and Iran, both of which the U.S. is trying to undermine. Jeffrey said Tuesday that the U.S. strategy will both weaken America's enemies while avoiding costly mission creep.

"This isn't Afghanistan, this isn't Vietnam," he explained. "This isn't a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians."

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Though Russia has been militarily successful in its support of Assad, Moscow has struggled to push the dictator towards a peace settlement. Recent reports suggest the Kremlin is frustrated with Assad's refusal to work towards a political solution to the nine-year war.

Jeffrey said the Russians don't "have a political way out" of their problems with Assad. "Our job is to present them through the U.N. and our support for the U.N., with a way forward, but that requires them distancing themselves to some degree from Assad and from the Iranians."

Jeffrey also said it was imperative to "keep the pressure on" the Assad regime, explaining, "I've never seen a regime that poses more threats to its region and to the American idea of how the world should be organized."

Jeffrey praised the "huge success of the Trump administration sanctions policies against Iran," which he said is having "a real effect in Syria." The president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, re-imposing crippling economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under Obama in exchange for curbs on the country's nuclear program.

"We do see some withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces," Jeffrey said. "Some of that is tactical because they are not fighting right now but it also reflects a lack of money. Therefore my recipe is more of the same."

U.S allies Israel and Turkey are also fighting against Assad and his backers. Turkey has conducted multiple invasions of Syrian territory, including against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.

Ankara also supports anti-Assad Islamist rebel groups who still control the only significant area still outside regime control in the northwestern Idlib province. Dozens of Turkish and several Russian soldiers were killed in the most recent regime offensive into Idlib.

Israel, meanwhile, regularly attacks Iranian troops, weapons and facilities in Syrian government territory.

Turkey's invasion of SDF territory last year prompted criticism from Europe and North America. Trump was also accused of abandoning America's SDF allies by ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from their positions along the Turkish border just before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the invasion.

Despite these tensions, Jeffrey stressed that Washington, D.C. and Ankara remain staunch allies, describing himself as a "full bore supporter of coordination and cooperation with the Turks on Syria."

"We share with them an interest in ensuring that Idlib does not fall to Assad's forces, we work with them closely on the constitutional committee and on a political solution," Jeffrey said. "Our end goal for Syria is very similar to theirs." He added that Ankara also considers Iran a threat, something he said Erdogan had told him personally twice.

Turkey's decision to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system also threw a spanner in the works of U.S.-Turkish relations. Erdogan went ahead with the purchase despite U.S. and NATO concerns that it might compromise the highly secretive F-35 fighter jet program, in which Turkey is a contributor and buyer. The U.S. kicked Turkey out of the program after the S-400 deal was completed.

Jeffrey acknowledged that the S-400 deal "is a huge issue." He explained, "From our standpoint we have no give. From the Turkish standpoint, it's a question of sovereignty. Both sides are locked in on that."

US, Russia, Syria, quagmire, James Jeffrey, Assad
A U.S. soldier is pictured near a Russian military armoured personnel carrier near the village of Tannuriyah in the countryside east of Qamishli in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on May 2, 2020. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty
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